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Electric V2G school bus pilots grow, but schools asleep at the wheel

“The batteries on this bus go bi-directional!” That’s what kids in White Plains School District, just north of New York City, can boast this back-to-school season. The kids already enjoyed riding five clean, quiet all-electric Lion C-type Electric School Buses last school year, and now those same buses have been fitted with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) tech to allow the bus to serve as backup stationary storage for the grid when parked. As with most things electric, the east coast is following California’s lead, where kids in the Torrance Unified School Districts began breathing easy on V2G electric school buses in 2016.

The achievement needs to be underscored: not only did these school districts swap out dirty diesel buses for clean electric buses, but the V2G tech on these buses further eliminates emissions by shaving peak electric load requirements, doing away with the need for (usually dirty, always expensive) peaker-plant power. It also adds a level of grid resilience that can keep the district lights on in the event of an electricity outage.

Most of us don’t care about school buses, but Kevin Matthews, co-director of the V2G EV School Bus Initiative, brings home the reality for anyone concerned with the health of the planet, let alone our children: there are 460,000 school buses in the United States (compared to less than 70,000 transit buses). School buses travel more miles as a fleet than transit buses do. On any given day that school is in session, school buses will transport more passengers than all U.S. domestic airlines. And the passengers on those buses are children with developing lungs. Investing in electric buses touches every socioeconomic status in every community in America.

Pilot projects are being pushed by utilities, not school districts

White Plains School District wasn’t a participant in the pilot. Instead, the project was seeded when New York’s Public Service Commission ordered the state’s six investor-owned utilities to put forward demonstration projects back in February 2015 as part of a statewide initiative to strengthen the grid following Hurricane Sandy.

Con Edison, the investor-owned utility that serves New York City and the surrounding region, proposed the school bus project in response. Con Edison divided the project into three phases. Phase 1 began summer 2018, with the delivery of five Lion Electric C-type school buses (105 kWh packs) to National Express, a British multinational that provides busing for the White Plains City School District. The buses performed flawlessly, with zero incidents operating over 293 school days, and the drivers who switched from diesel to the Lion buses reporting high satisfaction. During this first phase, Con Edison and National Express focused solely on studying the buses’ electricity consumption and charging patterns.

Phase 2 focused on the design and implementation of the V2G infrastructure. Nuvve Corp of San Diego supplies the V2G infrastructure including onboard inverters for the buses. Phase 2 is wrapping up, with Nuvve and Lion successfully test charging and discharging the buses, providing full V2G functionality. Phase 3 launches with the new school year next month, with full operation of V2G functionality. The buses will offer peak-shaving services to the grid. John Shipman, Con Edison Demonstration Project manager tells Electrek: “With over 8000 school buses in New York City and Westchester County there is a lot of upside potential for this particular use case all while providing students with cleaner transportation.”

California pilot concludes, proves value of V2G Electric Buses

Back in July 2014, the California Energy Commission approved a $1.4 million grant for the deployment of six V2G school buses. These buses were old 1996 model-year diesel Blue Bird buses, EV-converted with 96 kWh batteries and Nuvve 22kW bidirectional chargers. According to a detailed presentation (PDF) by Stephen Crolius of Alliance Consulting, a ‘Type C’ school bus (most common North American type, pictured above) costs $110,000 as a diesel. Modeling done by the V2G EV School Initiative indicates that when yearly demand for electric school buses reaches hundreds of units annually, the cost per bus should be approximately $230,000. That cost can quickly be recouped through fuel and maintenance savings, and of course the V2G benefits, which will vary from district to district.

Duke Power wants to giveaway 85 V2G school buses to North Carolina school districts, estimates $7,200 annual savings per bus

Earlier this year, Duke Power filed a proposal with the North Carolina Utilities Commission for its own pilot. Duke wants to give eighty-five $215,000 grants to North Carolina school districts (first come, first served) to buy V2G school buses. The utility would also install and own the bi-directional charger connected to its grid, and the school bus would work as a grid asset when not moving children. Duke estimates that each bus would present $7,200 per year in operational savings to the school district.

V2G school bus pilots multiply, but when will it move from pilot to default procurement choice?

On Monday this week — five years after the Torrance pilot — the California Public Utilities Commission approved another V2G school bus pilot for the region — this time by San Diego Gas & Electric — to buy ten more V2G school buses. We’re not making fast progress at replacing the 450,000 ICE school buses out there.

Marc Trahand of Nuvve is optimistic. Nuvve has already built project expertise in deploying V2G school buses in Europe, where they’re further along than here. Mr. Trahand tells Electrek that “now is time for the US to benefit from this technology commercially, beyond pilots.”

Mr. Matthews is hopeful that V2G school bus adoption will accelerate soon. He told Electrek:

“As more are ordered, OEMs are able to scale up supply chain and production capability and that will lead to lower production costs. Fortunately, the funds from the VW settlement, and those currently available in from State and Regional entities in California, and a couple of other emerging states, should be significant enough to reach a tipping point to start the downward production cost and reduce overall cost to buyers.”

Lion isn’t the only electric school bus game in town. Blue Bird received $4.4m from the US Dept. of Energy to develop low-cost, V2G capable school buses in 2016. We covered their roadshow in April 2018, and now Blue Bird announced on Monday that it has received over 100 orders for its electric school buses — although these will need modification to be V2G capable. Blue Bird is the largest US supplier of school buses and has three different models to choose from.

blue bird electric school bus

Electrek’s Take

It’s back to school season, what’s your school district doing about its filthy diesel buses? Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, Director of Transportation Efficiency at Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, says a main barrier is that school districts are “constrained by administrative capacity to conduct research, build community support, apply for funding, and adopt alternative fuel technology.”

This sounds like a call to action for Electrek readers. A handful of passionate, driven individuals coming together can effect significant change with their local school board. This is doable. Don’t wait around for your utility to try and seek permission for a handful of buses for yet another pilot. Point your school board officials to the successful pilots and save the kids and the planet while saving your school’s operating budget to boot.

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